Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was not only one of last summer’s best films it was literally one of the only major films to play in theaters during the coronavirus pandemic. If it weren’t for Covid-19, the movie would have competed with titles such as Wonder Woman 1984 (releasing on Dec. 25) and Greyhound which ended up on Apple+.
Many states ordered theaters closed (and some still are as of this review) but other states reopened theaters in a limited capacity. Arizona is one of those states and I was lucky enough (or stupid enough) to catch Tenet with a half dozen other cinephiles who braved to venture out into the public and sit in an enclosed space with strangers. Sitting dead center to the screen, usually with a mask on, it was like a personal screening of the movie that I will never forget.
On Dec. 15, Tenet released to Blu-ray, 4k Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital all on the same day. The movie is likely to be a best seller (and do well) in the home media market given Nolan’s fan base but also due the fact there really aren’t many good new films releasing to disc or digital – or at least films by a renowned director such as Christopher Nolan. Here’s a review of his latest venture that is part Bond, part Mission: Impossible, and definitely part Memento, on 4k Blu-ray, Blu-ray and Digital.
Tenet is signature Chistopher Nolan. If you’ve seen Inception it will give you an idea of the pace of Tenet but also in its layered and complex plot (which is often confusing, but who wants to get a film right from the start anyway?) that leads you deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole. And that might be the basic gist of Tenet, that the more you learn about Tenet there more confusing the concept gets.
John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) plays the Protagonist (that’s not film speak, that’s actually the credit name given) — a CIA agent who is tasked with tracking down the Russian oligarch Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh) who seems to have command of an ancient artifact that allows time to spin backwards.
Robert Pattinson plays Neil, the Protagonist’s handler who, at first, hides his connection with Tenet. Pattinson (who plays the role of Bruce Wayne in the upcoming movie The Batman) is not overpowering on-screen with Washington but rather provides a good supporting performance. Indian actress Dimple Kapadia plays a fairly large role as weapons dealer Priya. And, Michael Caine makes a cameo as British Intelligence officer Sir Michael Crosby.
Tenet on Ultra HD Blu-ray is presented in 4k 2160p resolution at 2.20:1 and 1.78:1 (IMAX sequences) aspect ratios. High Dynamic Range is layered into the stream via the HDR10 specification (although Apple TV indicates a Dolby Vision spec). This a very nice looking film (even streaming in 4k) but doesn’t seem to expand the color depth as much as other movies with HDR.
Not that it’s a terrible thing, but black levels are dense in many shots. In that sense, some of the color grading may remind you of the The Dark Knight Trilogy. The opening scene at the theater (see the image of the Protagonist in oxygen mask) is an example of how narrow the range of black levels can be in Tenet. Regardless, the deep black aesthetic definitely adds contrast and drama to the film.
The majority of the shots in Tenet are exemplary (in terms of lighting, composition, sharpness, and color grading), which means when a shot isn’t quite as good it sticks out like a sore thumb. An example is when the Protagonist is walking to the dinner party hosted by Sator. Not only does lighting on the subject appear to be missing but the overall look is darker than the rest of the scenes. Maybe it was purposeful, but that particular shot missed the mark with lighting.
Compared to 1080p Blu-ray the 4k presentation is 10x better. The Blu-ray version is very flat, lacking contrast and the color definition of the superior Ultra HD Blu-ray. If you’re watching the Blu-ray format you might be able to boost contrast or turn on a “cinematic black” setting on your TV (if available) to get more contrast. Those types of overrides can often make an image look better but can turn out worse in some cases.
When comparing the 4k Blu-ray to streaming 4k we found a slight loss in contrast but not so much loss in sharpness. The quality of 4k through digital methods is dependent on bandwidth, so be sure to have sufficient internet speed to get the full 4k delivery which will likely appear more compressed than the 4k disc, although at times hard to see a difference.
The audio provided in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn’t what you expect from a 4k Blu-ray as most titles these days feature Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1 or DTS-X. However, the soundtrack drives much of the imagery. As Nolan would have it the music composition is just as important any character in the movie. Layered with sound effects, ambient noise, and dialogue, the DTS-HD is maximized.
If you like gunfire and explosions, the first scene at the opera house has some great effects that travel through the large space as would a cello or violin, deeply layered with the screams of the audience and dialogue (somewhat muffled by the oxygen masks). Then, there is the anxiety-provoking music by composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Creed) that rides up like a rollercoaster without the impending drop.
The sailboat scene has some particularly great audio with details of the boat’s hardware clearly mixed with the sounds of crashing waves, wind, and the voices of the Protagonist, Sator and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) speaking through headsets.
Subtitles are provided in English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish.
The bonus features lineup is a must-watch for anyone who is confused after seeing the film for the first time, but also curious about how the movie was made. The 13-part “Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet” provides insight into the making of the movie as well as the concepts behind it, cinematography, costumes, sets, and more. There is over one hour of extra content supplied on a second Blu-ray (BD-25) in this 3-disc edition, adding a good amount of value to either the 2-disc Blu-ray editions or Digital purchase (Read: Here’s Where to Buy Tenet Blu-ray, 4k Blu-ray & Digital.)
After seeing the movie in its entirety twice (once in theaters and once at home) and giving it some time to settle, I found Tenet to be basically a glorified action film. The plot doesn’t really hold any surprises, but rather delivers expected revelations that seem rather simple after the fact. In its delivery though, and through the high concept of reversing time, Tenet is hard to digest all at once (and that’s a good thing) because it’s a movie you might find yourself watching over and over again while still finding something new.
Tenet is also a big-screen experience that would be hard to fully enjoy on a small screen like a phone, tablet, or laptop. The production value, cinematography, and big sound all contribute to the cinematic experience of Tenet, and maybe that is why Director Christopher Nolan is so outspoken about WarnerMedia’s decision to premiere 2021 films at home as well as in theaters.